Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Notes from a town on fire.

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An eternal flame was kept burning inside the hearth of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. A perpetual fire burned on the altar of the ancient Hebrews, to fulfill a biblical promise — that a fire shall burn forever and shall not be put out. They keep two flames burning in St. Petersburg to honor fallen soldiers, and in a Javanese village a flame has been burning for five hundred years, no matter how hard it rains. There are eternal flames burning all over the United States, in commemoration of Elvis or 9/11 or war, and there’s a hole of flames in Turkmenistan they call the Door to Hell. There’s an eternal flame down below, some say, raging beneath us all. And in a vanished mining town in Pennsylvania, a fire is burning too.

High in the hills and far from the flames is the last church standing in Centralia. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary watches over the fire, has watched over the fire for 50 years, is in the fire but not of the fire. The church is one of the last remaining witnesses to the disappearance of Centralia. There are a handful of others. Five houses still stand in Centralia, scattered among the ruins, with five families who still refuse to call another town home, though everyone else has gone. The St. Ignatius cemetery was left standing, though the St. Ignatius church was torn down years ago, and American flags still wave over the graves. And then there is the Odd Fellows Cemetery next to the old burnt-out landfill where, supposedly, the Centralia fire began. People always say of ghost towns, “And here the dead outnumber the living.” But the dead outnumber the living everywhere, and they always will.

Old pictures of Centralia only make present-day Centralia more puzzling. You are supposed to believe that, just 30 years back, this overgrown gravel path was a line of row houses where the families of coal miners lived. That the wooden door lying in a pile of bushes once opened. There are no longer any borders to delineate human space in Centralia — it is all fill and no outline. In the shambles of Centralia is an inexplicable staircase — to borrow a phrase from Dos Passos — three cockeyed cement steps that lead up a grassless hill pocked with holes of smoking black heat. There are pockets of quiet fire all over Centralia, and then there is the road. The former Route 61 is now just a mile of wasted asphalt hidden behind the new Route 61. Driving through the borough you would never know the road was even there. You must go through the trees and down a hill and follow the spray paint beneath your feet. If ever you want to get a taste of oblivion, walk straight down the median of an American highway to nowhere. You can look for messages in the graffiti, and listen for voices in the cracks.

You can’t really call Centralia a ghost town, former postmaster Tom Dempsey told the Lebanon Daily News last year. “It’s not like a ghost town because ghost towns have buildings remaining that are falling down,” he said.

In Centralia, said Dempsey, there’s nothing.

It was a sunny Valentine’s Day in 1981 when 12-year-old Todd Domboski fell into the fire. He had been in his grandmother’s backyard and noticed a plume of smoke. Such sights had become commonplace in Centralia ever since an abandoned coal mine caught fire beneath the town in 1962. A whole labyrinth of forgotten mines snaked below Centralia, which had slowly filled with fire. Clouds of wretched vapors surfaced all over Centralia, smoke from burning trash and from coal. The trees started to die; the air got harder to breathe. At first they tried to put the fires down, but the flames raged on. Nineteen years went by, and people just kind of got used to it. There were about a thousand residents of Centralia, Pennsylvania in 1981 — most had lived there all their lives. Centralians learned to step over the fire and cross to the other side of the street and patch up the fissures that sprang up in their yards as best they could.

The ground opened up beneath Todd Domboski and swallowed him up to his chest. Later, Todd told reporters that the sinkhole smelled of rotten eggs. It was 150 feet deep. Todd’s screams were heard by his cousin Erik, who managed to pull him out of the hole. But it got a lot harder after that to pretend everything was okay. Centralia was no longer a small town with an innocuous fire. The town was becoming its own funeral pyre. It was time for the residents of Centralia to go. Congress handed the town $42 million and suggested the residents move elsewhere. Centralia, they were told, was going to be destroyed. In 1992 the governor of Pennsylvania invoked eminent domain over the borough of Centralia, condemning every last building remaining. They took away Centralia’s ZIP code in 2002, turning Centralia officially into no place, like a piece of sky or the middle of the sea.

From the mid 19th century when the borough was incorporated, Centralia was a town of coal. It was built over a large vein of anthracite coal: Coal was its employer and master. The hills were stripped and the earth gouged out and a modest town of miners grew. The railroad came and seven churches were built, along with twenty-seven saloons, two theatres, a bank, a post office, and fourteen general stores. A few years passed and everything was going well, until one autumn day in 1868, when Centralia’s founder Alexander Rea was found murdered in his buggy. The culprits were radical Molly Maguires, a secret society of Irish-American coal miners who were waging war against the chokehold of coal. The life of coal was a bitter one for Pennsylvania miners, many of whom were children or elderly. Three men were convicted of Rea’s death and sentenced to death by hanging. Other murders happened too, and there were reports of arson in the town. Then Centralia’s Roman Catholic priest was assaulted and pronounced a famous curse. A day will come, declared Father Daniel Ignatius McDermott, when St. Ignatius Church would be the only structure remaining in Centralia. One day, the angry priest continued, this town will be erased from the face of the earth.

It’s the kind of curse you forget about, until it all comes true.

The Great War stole young miners away from Centralia and coal production declined. The stock market crashed in 1929 and the Lehigh Valley Coal Company closed five of its Centralia mines. Coal mining carried on in Centralia until the 1960s, and then most of the companies shut down. Bootleg miners would come to the abandoned mines and fill their buckets with the coal they scraped from coal pillars. These pillars supported the roofs of the mines and over the years they began to collapse. No one gave much thought to these fallen-down mines until May of 1962.

People drifted away from Centralia and its little population halved. A thousand or so stayed in the humble town, hoping for better times ahead. Even if the better times never did come, Centralia was home.

No one seems to know just how the fire started, though the theories are many. One theory says that the fire was purposely set by volunteer firemen hired to clean up the town landfill that lay next to the Odd Fellows Cemetery. This was the way the landfill had been tidied for years, they later argued, a ritual cleansing through fire. Another theory says that the fire was accidentally caused when a trash hauler dumped hot ash or coal into the landfill. Some people blamed the Bast Colliery fire of 1932, which they said had never gone out, and had traveled underground for thirty whole years before it reached the landfill in 1962. There was a rumor that the summer heat spontaneously combusted the trash, and there are those who said the fires were always burning in Centralia. Fire, they would say to reporters and officials, is just a part of life in coal country.

We don’t know for sure how the flames started, only that they could not be stopped. Some say the Centralia fire may burn another 250 years, and some people say a thousand. In other words, nobody knows when the flames of Centralia will stop burning, or if they’ll stop burning, or what will become of Centralia.

We can’t quite make up our minds. At first we thought our greatest achievement was that we learned to make fire. And then we felt very proud of ourselves when we learned to put fire out. On every continent in nearly every country across our planet Earth, eternal flames burn bright. They are used for memorials and celebrations alike — but why eternal flames? Because our greatest feat was learning to control fire completely. We believed that when we mastered fire, we had mastered the elements and thus the entire world. An eternal flame is a celebration of human power itself. No longer will fire be a dangerous and mysterious force, said Prometheus to the people. Now fire is our beautiful slave — it will melt for us, burn for us, and be extinguished when it burns too brightly.

Every eternal flame across the world is a monument to the hubris of Prometheus, even the solemnest memorial. Most keep going via a continuous spray of gas, and there is little maintenance to be done. Long ago, the flames had to be constantly tended, their eternal status tenuous. The hubris of Prometheus was tempered with the fear that the flame might actually go out. The tender of the flame was often a priest who had dedicated his whole life to the fire. He would watch the fire and feed the fire and mind it like a newborn child. And all the while he would think to himself, We are the fire, and the fire is us. We are powerful and too powerful. We are nurturing and we destroy. If the fire goes out, we go out, and we no longer know who we are.

Centralia became smaller and poorer after mining released its hold on the town. But as Centralia disappeared into the cracks of Pennsylvania, the town settled into itself too. The name Centralia meant something important, to the handful who lived and died there.

Four years after the landfill fire, in 1966, Centralia celebrated its centennial. Ten thousand people arrived for three days of fireworks and concerts and parades. The whole area came out just to celebrate Centralia  — a working-class town with immigrant roots that would be forgotten again when the fireworks ceased. As part of the festivities, Centralians decided they would write a message to the future. They created a time capsule for the town’s sesquicentennial, to be opened in 50 years. In 1966, Centralians gathered together a collection of objects that represented them best: a miner’s lamp, a Bible, a town history, some lumps of coal. They sealed the artifacts in a child’s burial vault donated by Stutz Funeral Home. Centralians buried their time capsule under the lawn of the American Legion and tried to imagine what Centralia would be like in the year 2016.

Before an eternal flame was ignited in the Temple at Delphi and a shrine erected, before the Temple was a temple, there was just a smoking chasm. It is said that the prophetic chasm was discovered accidentally by goats, who went crazy every time they looked into the hole. They would inhale its strange vapors and dance and bleat and hurl themselves into the abyss. A herdsman came to investigate the chasm and became just as possessed as his goats. He jumped around and, what’s more, began to tell predictions. No longer was he an ordinary shepherd. He’d become a human channel for prophecies. More and more people came to the chasm and each became a fortuneteller. They would gather in a frenzy around the smoking earth, wildly predicting the future to one another. Nobody could tell what was true and what was false — some people followed the goats into the chasm and disappeared forever.

So a temple was built around the chasm and professional prophets were hired. Vapors billowed from beneath the temple floors and followed the lines of the temple walls. The oracle at Delphi sat on a tripod above the holy crevasse, looking just she as does in John Collier’s painting. Smoke and steam wound itself through the red robes of the Sybil, into her clothes and eyes. She would fall into a deep trance, seized by a divine madness, and pronounce her predictions upon those who sought her counsel. The Sibyl was a lunatic and a prophet and you never really knew if she spoke truth or nonsense. It was thought best to take it all in. Whether or not the information the Sibyl got from the smoking chasm below her was correct, it was always about the future.

Before the Temple at Delphi became a famous ruin, before its eternal flame went out for good, its mythical architects had carved two lasting prophecies on a column: Know Thyself and Nothing In Excess. Only people can stop the flames from consuming us whole, says the Sybil, and only people can keep the flames going. • 18 November 2013

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.

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